261. Three O’Clock

A flock of sparrows
Rose up through the trees.
Since noon they’d gathered
Singly in the branches. Now,
Uneasy near the ground,
They broke, drifting
Upward, balloons without 
A string, ascending
Higher, in a pulsing, climbing
Cloud, than they had
Ever liked to float,
Or liked to fly.
With treetops far below,
A dizzy height, and wing-tips
Brushing, searching
Safety, they trod air.

Boiling the horizon.
Too rapid for belief,
An earth-wide column
Towering upward, toward
The sun–collapsing
On itself, the dust
As black as coal
Distended, swelled, and then
Began to roll.
Spanning north to west,
It gathered speed, and
Churned out east and south,
Seething bulges blotting
Earth out, and
The sky.

The sparrows scolded shrilly.
Down below–the northbound
Road–a truck and
Then a car pulled over,
As if stunned. They
Spun round, heading back
To where they came.
But not in time:
Dark gained on them, like
A predator–they were
Lost to sight, and
Soundless, swallowed whole.

Birds, suspended,
Beneath them, like ants
From a burning log,
The people poured
Into their yards.
They faced the coming cloud;
They waved their arms, they
Stumbled, darted here
And there–back
In the house–far
Down the street–and some
Fled wild, erratically, as if
They might be seeking
Someone, calling out.
Soon, lost to sight.

The sparrows were no more.
Their blue sky, turned
To pitch-black blast, had
Sucked them,
Blinded, plucked, and
Snapped to scattered ash
Their hollow bones.
No height
Was high enough.
No wing was strong.

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